James Avery earned the Medal of Honor by saving men under extreme gunfire during the Battle of Mobile Bay. According to his medal citation, while serving aboard the U.S.S. Metacomet, Avery, as a member of the boat's crew, "went to the rescue of the U.S. monitor Tecumseh when that vessel was struck by a torpedo in passing the enemy forts in Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864. (Seaman) Avery braved the enemy fire which was said by the admiral to be 'one of the most galling' he had ever seen, and aided in rescuing from death 10 of the crew of the Tecumseh, eliciting the admiration of both friend and foe."
I've visited Fort Morgan a number of times, and the peaceful sea grasses and lapping waves refuse to hint at what Avery and the other men went through on that day almost 150 years ago. And that brief citation and the knowledge that Avery was awarded the medal would be all we know of this man, were it not for an amazing story the New York Times published in 1898, a few months before Avery's death.
The story is set in the 1890s and Avery has been a sailor for most of his life. He is now an old tar having a difficult time adjusting to the Navy's new metal steam ships. Because Avery can't do the work of a "modern" sailor, his commanding officer gives him an easier—if lowly—position as a berth-deck cook. All that changes, however, when the captain accidentally discovers that Avery earned the Medal of Honor.
This is an extremely touching slice of life story, which gives a great glimpse of a sailor's life during the late 1800s. I highly recommend this story to anyone interested in character sketches or maritime tales, or, hell, simple human nature. You can access the original story here.
I'd like to close with Avery's words on why he risked his life to save those men:
"I did like the rest of the men that day, and I never expected anything more than my pay and rations. We tried to do our duty, and when we saw the men in the other ship being shot down and some drowning, we could only try to help them. God knows it was hard to see them being murdered without much chance for escape."